‘I did a lot of pretty medi­ocre TV stuff. It’s a mir­a­cle I’ve done what I’ve done af­ter that’


The Herald Magazine - - Interview -

HAVE I ever punched a man?” When he wants to think about a ques­tion Rob Bry­don re­peats it slowly back to you in that lovely rich Welsh ac­cent of his, soft­ened but not squashed by his years liv­ing in Lon­don. It’s the voice of Un­cle Bryn in Gavin and Stacey, of TV gameshows and even that P&O cruise TV ad.

“Have I ever punched a man?” Bry­don pauses for a beat. And then an­other. “No,” he fi­nally says. “No. I think I had a fight when I was a boy, but … No, no, I’ve never punched a man. It’s not in my na­ture.”

Maybe he thinks that’s a dis­ap­point­ing an­swer, so he quickly adds: “I do a bit of box­ing train­ing. I try and keep fit and part of my train­ing is box­ing train­ing, which makes me think, were I ever to find my­self in an al­ter­ca­tion, I’d know what to do.

“But I sus­pect the re­al­ity would be a lit­tle messier.”

A Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon in Straw­berry

Hill in south-west Lon­don and all is calm. The sun is shin­ing and Bry­don has spent the morn­ing in the gar­den. Here is Bry­donus Do­mes­ti­cus. Hus­band – at one point in our con­ver­sa­tion his wife calls him to ask him to take some­thing out of the freezer; he po­litely tells her it will have to wait – and fa­ther of five; three from his first mar­riage and two chil­dren who are 10 and six from his sec­ond.

“Un­til you have chil­dren you don’t know how deeply you can love,” he tells me. “I think the love for a child can be over­whelm­ing. Which is not to say I’m Mr Lovey-Dovey. I’m as ex­as­per­ated and de­feated by it as any­one. But it’s an­other level of love.”

Of course it’s Bry­donus Pro­fes­sion­alus that the rest of us know. Later tonight he is per­form­ing at a pri­vate func­tion. To­mor­row he is film­ing more episodes of the TV panel show he hosts, Would I Lie to You? (now in its 11th se­ries). And right now he has re­treated to his of­fice on the top floor of his house to talk to me.

The rea­son? His lat­est film, Swim­ming with Men, which is to­mor­row night’s clos­ing night gala choice for this year’s Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Swim­ming with Men is the story of Eric, a mid­dle-aged ac­coun­tant (played by Bry­don) who has never punched any­one (hence the ques­tion above) and is nur­tur­ing a midlife cri­sis. To com­bat it, he joins a male syn­chro­nised swim­ming team fea­tur­ing the likes of Daniel Mays and Thomas Tur­goose, coached by Char­lotte Ri­ley. It’s a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to make a feel­good movie. Swim­ming with Men is this year’s The Full Monty (or so its mak­ers will be hop­ing).

From the ti­tle, I tell him, I had imag­ined Broke­back Moun­tain in Wa­ter, but that’s not quite what I got. “That’s a shame,” he says laugh­ing. “That’s what we were aim­ing for.”

Ad­mit it, Rob, you only did it so you could spend the whole day in a pair of Speedos.

“I’m not sure about that. That was quite chal­leng­ing, the phys­i­cal as­pect of it. We did two weeks of boot camp in the wa­ter. Three hours a day. Shoot­ing scenes in the pool, it doesn’t take long be­ing in and out of the wa­ter for your body tem­per­a­ture to drop. We were all get­ting freez­ing cold and you’d be com­pet­ing with the other guys to be last into the wa­ter and first out.”

And then there’s the suck­ing in your belly for ev­ery shot, I say. No, he doesn’t think that hap­pened too much.

“I’m cer­tainly guilty of hold­ing my stom­ach in real life. I wa­ver be­tween think­ing: ‘Oh, no, let it all hang out. Show a hu­man be­ing’. And then oc­ca­sion­ally van­ity would creep up on you and you’d think: ‘Hold it in’.”

Swim­ming with Men aims to be a crowd-pleaser and I think that’s what Bry­don tries to be too. Yes, you can find dark, dys­func­tional sit­coms such as Mar­ion and Ge­off or Hu­man Re­mains on his CV.

And, yes, the on­go­ing mock­u­men­tary se­ries The Trip, in which he ap­pears along­side Steve Coogan, is all nee­dle and snark.

But, re­ally, Bry­don is just at home – maybe more so – in his more main­stream ven­tures. I think it’s fair to say he is not afraid of the “light en­ter­tain­ment” la­bel. He has lit­tle of the com­edy snob­bery some of us bring to the table.

“I re­mem­ber talk­ing to Steve when we were do­ing one of the Trips,” he be­gins when I bring it up. “He had older sib­lings, which I think can make a dif­fer­ence. I didn’t. And I re­mem­ber him say­ing that he didn’t go to see Grease at the cin­ema be­cause he felt or knew that it was for ‘the masses’.

“I had no con­cep­tion of there be­ing such a thing as ‘the masses’ at that age. In fact, it was years be­fore I had a con­cep­tion of that. I’ve al­ways liked many dif­fer­ent types of cul­ture. I’ve al­ways liked Bruce Forsyth.”

BRY­DON ad­mires Gore Vi­dal, too, he points out. But he is not ashamed of ad­mir­ing Bruce and Des O’Connor and Frankie How­erd and Bob Monkhouse and Terry Wo­gan. He sees noth­ing wrong with Satur­day night prime-time TV or West End glitz.

And he’s had the odd mo­ment him­self. “I’ve been very lucky and I’ve done shows at the Pal­la­dium with Neil Di­a­mond, sung with Tom Jones at Wem­b­ley Arena.”

In short, cult sta­tus is not some­thing he has ever as­pired to. “I like to get on with peo­ple, I like to be easy to work with. I see no value in be­ing dark and moody and mys­te­ri­ous and enig­matic. I’m more of a ‘Let’s get on with it and then go home’ type of a per­son. I like to be quite fo­cused on a set.

“I’m prob­a­bly not as jokey as you might think. I’m not a big corpser. I’m not a big one for break­ing up in the mid­dle of a scene in howls of laughter. I get a bit miffed by that.”

Did he ever want to be dark and mys­te­ri­ous? “Yeah, I think all actors when they’re younger think they’re go­ing to be Al Pa­cino. But I think all you can be is who you are. You can only find success if you are true to your­self rather than ap­ing some­body else.”

Any­way, he says, some­times the choices you make have noth­ing to do with what is cool or what might be suc­cess­ful or how it will help your career.

“Cer­tainly, for me, the choices I make now are as much to do with fam­ily and my home life. So I don’t want to go away for months on end, for ex­am­ple. I just don’t want to not see the chil­dren.”

“That’s a big part of it, which I think peo­ple fail to un­der­stand. They as­sume you ex­ist on some weird plane where there is noth­ing else go­ing on.

“I’m not de­fined by my work. It’s not the big­gest thing in my life, whereas I think there are many for whom it is. It’s still their thing.”

Was it ever that for you, Rob? “Yes, yes. But then I seem to be some­body who will tick some­thing off …”

He reaches for an ex­am­ple. “I grew up be­ing very into Amer­i­can cul­ture. Peo­ple like Johnny Car­son and David Let­ter­man

I like to get on with peo­ple, I like to be easy to work with. I see no value in be­ing dark and moody and mys­te­ri­ous and enig­matic

and I had an am­bi­tion to go and do that when I was younger.

“But what I’ve found is I’ve done a lit­tle bit over there and I’m kind of sated by it now, you know?

“I did one Jimmy Fal­lon show about five years ago. I had that ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing to NBC, go­ing up in the lift, meet­ing Jimmy Fal­lon, who was adorable, and go­ing on the show. And I thought: ‘OK, I don’t need to do that again’.”

ASK Bry­don about child­hood and he might start talk­ing about the smell of leather. “A few years ago, my wife bought me a leather wal­let for my birth­day and I re­mem­ber open­ing it up and she was quite alarmed as I plunged my nose into it be­cause the smell was iden­ti­cal to the satchel I had on my first day of proper school. It brought back all those mem­o­ries.”

It’s the noise of wood­pi­geons that takes me back, I tell him. “Yes!” he al­most shouts. “There was a school I was at and one class was two storeys up and [out­side] there was a beau­ti­ful tree; thick branches, ver­dant leaves and that …”

He starts to mimic the thick-throated noise of Welsh wood­pi­geons.

“And, of course, it would have been an or­di­nary day but, in my mind, it was filmic. It’s cine­matic and beau­ti­fully lit. It’s in­ter­est­ing how these things play out in the mind.”

Bry­don grew up in south Wales, went to the same com­pre­hen­sive school as his fel­low Gavin and Stacey star Ruth Jones and al­ways wanted to en­ter­tain. “I would be the one in the play­ground mak­ing the oth­ers laugh.”

And yet it would take him a long time be­fore he man­aged to par­lay that love af­fair into a career. He wanted to be an ac­tor. He did stand-up. But all that led to was a job as a ra­dio pre­sen­ter and, at one stage in his twen­ties, pre­sent­ing the Shop­ping Chan­nel. Was he any good at it?

“I was. I think I was one of the best they had. This was in about 1988-89 and it was in the very early days of Sky tele­vi­sion. For me it was a way of get­ting to Lon­don. With hind­sight it prob­a­bly ham­strung me for a bit be­cause you’re cer­tainly not go­ing to get taken se­ri­ously as an ac­tor if you’ve been on the Shop­ping Chan­nel.

“But in the longer run I learned a lot from it. I learned about telling and en­ergy. It gave me a lot of time on cam­era. It gave me a lot of time read­ing au­tocue.

“The past is an­other coun­try and you think: ‘What was I do­ing?’ But I was very young, naïve. My fa­ther was a sales­man. That was maybe some­thing I would have done if I hadn’t gone into what I’m do­ing. I slightly cringe when it’s brought up, but there it is.

“I did all sorts of things. I did that. I did a lot of TV pre­sent­ing of pretty medi­ocre stuff. In many ways it’s a mir­a­cle I’ve done what I’ve done af­ter that start.”

Bry­don was 35 when Mar­ion and Ge­off and Hu­man Re­mains sud­denly gave him some career trac­tion. “I was be­gin­ning to lose faith in ever mak­ing it just be­fore that.”

That late start may have staved off any midlife cri­sis, he thinks. “I’m 53 now. Many things started to im­prove for me around my midlife pe­riod.

One of the things in Swim­ming with Men that I try to con­vey is Eric’s awk­ward­ness of join­ing a new group of peo­ple that he wasn’t fa­mil­iar with, which I think a lot of peo­ple would feel. I’m told that for men their so­cial cir­cles di­min­ish as they get older.

“Be­ing an ac­tor and be­ing me, it’s ac­tu­ally very dif­fer­ent. Be­cause I’m con­stantly go­ing into new groups of peo­ple with dif­fer­ent jobs and con­stantly pick­ing up new friends, some of whom be­come real friends, some of whom be­come ac­quain­tances, col­leagues. It’s very dif­fer­ent for me. Per­son­ally, I find that kind of thing easy.”

That said, I won­der if you can trace Bry­don’s will­ing­ness to try his hand at ev­ery­thing back to that pe­riod be­fore success. Does he still see the shadow of the wolf at the door out of the cor­ner of his eye?

No, he says, but only through force of will. “I don’t al­low my­self to think of that in the same way that I don’t al­low my­self to think of nerves or stage­fright. I won’t al­low it. But some­times it creeps in. It does knock at the door.

“You have to say: ‘No, no, no, you’re not com­ing in here’. You have to be on your toes and not al­low it be­cause my career is over if I lose my con­fi­dence, if I lose my self-be­lief.”

I don’t al­low my­self to think of nerves or stage­fright ... be­cause my career is over if I lose my con­fi­dence

Swim­ming with Men closes the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val to­mor­row night. It then goes on gen­eral re­lease on Fri­day.

In Per­son: Rob Bry­don is at the Ed­in­burgh Film­house tonight at 6.20pm

Above: Bry­don, front cen­tre, in Swim­ming with Men

Be­low: As Un­cle Bryn in Gavin and Stacey

Above: Host Bry­don with reg­u­lars and guests on Would I Lie To You? Left: With co-star Ju­lia Davis in black com­edy Hu­man Re­mains

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